Written by: Anna Fragides
Sharing economy, collaborative consumption, micropayment, open-source platforms, crowdfunding, peer-to-peer, barter economy, universal basic income, bitcoin, 3D printing, micro-trade… What is the current zeitgeist saying to marketers? Are we paying close attention?
More often than not, global marketing professionals stress the importance of scanning the periphery for early signals pertaining to global trends, markets, the global economy, consumers, competition and so on and so forth. But do we marketers always practice what we preach? Or do we perhaps find ourselves entrapped in the conventional marketing discourse unintentionally ignoring what is really happening in the world? Could some of the classic marketing and branding theories be on the verge of becoming obsolete? And can we presage the future of marketing and brands?
In November 2015, the UK’s leading title for marketing professionals, Marketing Magazine UK, dedicated its monthly issue to postcapitalism (yes, you read that right, postcapitalism!). The digital issue titled “Are you ready for Postcapitalism?” featured a series of articles and a podcast session whereby marketing experts discussed the whiff of change in the air that permeated the year that was about to end and the implications of disruptive developments in the economy for marketers. Their point of departure was the new book of Channel 4 economics editor Paul Mason “PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future”.
In July 2015, Paul Mason, the British journalist who covered extensively what has now been coined as the “Athens Spring” (the rise in power of left-wing Syriza party in Greece), “dropped a bomb” with an article in The Guardian which contained ideas and excerpts from his new book. The article was titled “The end of capitalism has begun”. Mason caused -pretty much- a stir by suggesting that as we type away on our smartphones, our economic system is undergoing a major shift. This transformation to (what might still seem to many as) a utopian economic future is, according to Mason, a result of the acceleration of information technology. Mason’s postcapitalism thesis is based on three pillars: 1. the advent of automation diminishes the need for work, 2. the plethora of socially produced information corrodes market prices (as markets rely on scarcity) and 3. the rise of collaborative production poses a direct threat to the market system. More specifically he maintains: “Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world -Wikipedia- is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue”.
Although this new type of economy might not be visible to the bare eye, Mason argues that as the digital revolution is coming of age, we are slowly but steadily moving to an economic system that will allow “a more socially just and environmentally sustainable way of living”. He presents examples from austerity-stricken Greece where an alternative “shadow” economy with “networks that you cannot default on” is basically thriving; food co-ops, parallel currencies, squats, carpools, alternative producers, free kindergartens, local exchange systems and dozens of grassroots initiatives are operating through networked activity, free time and free stuff. Mason contends that info-capitalism has created a new type of human behaviour which as much as it clearly questions the viability of the current system it also offers solutions and alternatives. French Professor of Economics and one of the strongest advocates of Degrowth theory, Serge Latouche (2011) writes in his book “Farewell to Growth” that capitalism “erodes the social fabric”. It seems that Mason is on to something.
But Paul Mason is not the only one who anticipates the end of capitalism as we know it. Thomas Piketty, another French economist, with his piece in the Guardian -via Le Monde- discusses the rise of the Bernie Sanders phenomenon. Piketty interprets the remarkable success of Sanders, one of the Democratic candidates in the US primaries, as the beginning of the end of neoliberal politics and policies that started with the Reagan regime in the 1980s. According to Piketty, inequality and fatigue over the status quo are the main reasons behind this tremendous shift of the American public towards socialism, a taboo word in the mind of the average American citizen, voter or not. Sanders’s popularity is prevalent among the younger generations, perhaps an indication that information technology is bringing along with it a new paradigm of egalitarianism. More sceptical voices like Noam Chomsky’s however, are drawing a distinction; according to Chomsky, Sanders is not a socialist but merely a “new-dealer”, a statement with connotations to Roosevelt and the post-WWII golden age of capitalism. One thing remains for sure; people all around the world are demanding a new deal.
World-renowned Professor of Sociology, especially known for his work on inequality, Zygmunt Bauman, provides another perspective on current affairs. Bauman attributes this social shift to the collapse of financial institutions in 2008 and describes our era as deeply and increasingly individualistic. As per the professor, online social networks are merely substitutes of real-life communities. Bauman sees social media as a trap which allows each individual to create a comfort zone. According to the sociologist, by doing so, dialogue is hindered due to the simplicity and ease of avoiding controversy as digital natives can remove connections and delete or refrain from comments which do not appeal to them. From such an angle, it is hard to see how social change could be facilitated through social media platforms, at least on a larger scale.
So, if our economic system is indeed under some kind of groundbreaking transformation how will this evolution affect marketing and branding in practical terms? The Marketing Magazine UK, in a 30-minute podcast contemplates the role of the future marketer in a postcapitalist scenario. In a digital world, abundant with information goods and cheap, collaborative production, the traditional boundaries between the organization and the consumer have broken down. The consumer is now part of the business (co-creating value, etc.) and –most importantly- the brand mark-up is lost (clearly one cannot but think of Naomi Klein’s “No Logo”). As consumers become more and more perceptive, they are looking to form relationships with brands that serve a wider purpose. The marketer is now called to abandon the quest of manipulating artificial value through the branding of a product. S/he is instead required to provide concrete data which prove that the product is addressing real global issues and adding to social good.
In terms of brands in particular, the Marketing Magazine UK experts see them not as manufacturers and retailers anymore but as service providers. This fact alone poses a challenge to certain categories of products (and their marketers) such as consumables -how can you be directly associated with contributing to greater good when your product is a toothpaste or cat food? In this postcapitalist, post-brand era and peer-reviewed economy, marketers will have to be able to provide solid facts and data that the brand is a force for good. Why? Because the brand is now out of the control of the marketing professional and in the public domain. The profusion of information is there, readily available, to let consumers know whether your brand is doing positive things. Besides the obvious examples of the so-called sharing economy such as Uber and Airbnb, the Marketing Magazine podcast discusses the joint venture of BMW and Sixt, called “DriveNow”, a carsharing service. It seems that the automobile industry is leading the way in this economic transition to a world beyond direct ownership.
But doesn’t this marketing frame sound all too familiar in a way? One could make a connection to something as old as Kotler’s (1971) social marketing theory and Stephen Brown’s (1996) postmodern marketing concept, both works from past decades. While Philip Kotler talks about “planned social change” whereby marketing tools are used to systematically promote what is perceived as common good, Brown, some twenty years later, proposes a one-to-one or what Vargo & Lusch (2004) later called in their Service-Dominant Logic review, actor-to-actor (A2A) marketing approach. In Brown’s postmodern marketing proposal, a multi-dimensional ecosystem exists whereby consumers co-create and endorse brands by interacting with the brand and/or immersing themselves in a process of mass customization.
In any case and whether you decide to call our times a transition to some form of post-postmodern capitalism or adopt Mason’s more radical postcapitalism thesis or if you simply decide to call it a period of interregnum as Bauman does, it seems that change is imminent. As the Marketing Magazine UK experts contemplate, the role of the marketer “will no longer be about driving long-term sales and controlling the brand”. Instead, the marketer will be a public servant, an interface, a hub of information whose role will not be to sell but make sure that the organization is doing the right things. As there will be no scope for error under the sleepless eye of the digital citizen, the marketer will now be the one who “will rebuild and reinvent organizations which will make economies thrive”. The future role of the marketing professional in indeed fascinating!
El Pais. 2016. Zygmunt Bauman: “Social media are a trap”. Available online: http://elpais.com/elpais/2016/01/19/inenglish/1453208692_424660.html (accessed: 20.02.2016)
Marketing Magazine UK. 2015. Available online: http://www.marketingmagazine.co.uk/ (accessed: 20.02.2016)
SD Logic. 2016. Available online: http://www.sdlogic.net/index.html (accessed: 20.02.2016)
The Guardian. 2016. The end of capitalism has begun. Available online: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/17/postcapitalism-end-of-capitalism-begun (accessed: 20.02.2016)
The Guardian. 2016. Thomas Piketty on the rise of Bernie Sanders: the US enters a new political era. Available online: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/commentisfree/2016/feb/16/thomas-piketty-bernie-sanders-us-election-2016 (accessed: 20.02.2016)
US. Uncut. 2016. Chomsky: Bernie Sanders is a ‘Decent, Honest, New-Dealer with the Best Policies’. Available online: http://usuncut.com/politics/noam-chomsky-bernie-sanders-new-dealer-best-policies/ (accessed: 20.02.2016)